Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Drawing Attitude: John Biggers and the Visual Development of the Aunt Dicy Personality

For the four teen stories of J. Mason Brewer’s 1956 volume, Aunt Dicy Tales, Snuff Dipping Tales of the Texas Negro, John Biggers created the perfect images. The spirit of Aunt Dicy Johnson of Burleson County, East Texas, is one of self-assured determination expressed through her strong moral stance, her ingenuity and her wit. In the power of her personality, she becomes iconic of the strength of black women in the African Diaspora. From Aunt Dicy emerges the richness of character that Biggers would find again a year later in the women of West Africa, personifying the strength of spirit that enabled black people to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage and beyond. With her husband Uncle June, she creates a homestead in a Texas that is vast and often difficult, but she perseveres and ultimately she, the land and its white inhabitants all reach an understanding.

In the frontispiece of the volume, the heroine walks with rifle in hand and head raised, waving at a man on horseback while her husband and daughters follow behind bearing the family’s wagon of belongings. She calls to mind a modern day Harriet Tubman, leading her people with passion and conviction. But this “General Moses” named Aunt Dicy, possesses no small degree of good humor and mother wit. To create her, John Biggers drew upon a tremendous personal legacy of black women - family, friends,and community leaders - from North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. We have all known an Aunt Dicy in our lives. Rosa Parks is Aunt Dicy. Fannie Lou Hamer is Aunt Dicy. Nina Simone is Aunt Dicy. Augusta Savage is Aunt Dicy. Without all the Aunt Dicys of the world, the struggle of black people would have been all the more difficult.

Biggers’ black and white contè crayon drawings, with their deep shadows and dense crosshatching, create an elemental solidity that matches the directness of J. Mason Brewer’s writing style. Brewer’s plain-spoken characters are mirrored by plainly constructed drawings that lack excessive flourish or unnecessary compositional elements. Between the words and images, the strong and convincing personality of Aunt Dicy is developed fully.

The drawings in this project are necessarily augmented by the personality established in J. Mason Brewer’s vernacular narratives. It was essential that the artist creating the drawings be able to hear the subtle layered messages and meanings in the speech of the African American south, a speech rich with texture and symbolism. Aunt Dicy would have heard this language, would have spoken it every day. The successful combination of appearance and voice of the Aunt Dicy character was critical, for it was the seamless merging of the attributes of the heroine that enabled Aunt Dicy to come off the pages of the book and into the minds and hearts of the reader/viewer.

Besides the strongly built forms, Aunt Dicy’s body language defines her personality. Her steady gaze, her upturned chin,her pointing finger and her hands-on-hip stance are all African American body language indicators that state, “I am a force to be dealt with.” Her long finger points to the voting box, to the smudged glasses, to the spittoon on the train, with an assuredness and a solidity that is expressive. Her independence is palpable: who will be the next person that she will take on? Indeed,the only time that Aunt Dicy appears in an humble pose is in the story, “Aunt Dicy at the Heavenly Gates,” when she peers demurely at St. Peter; but even there she is asserting herself, pointing out her signature in heaven’s roll book, blotted out with snuff juice. It is as if she realizes that she deserves a life in heaven, all of her tireless work on earth having been completed at last. Although she no longer carries the ever-present snuff dipping stick in her mouth, she still keeps it tucked discreetly between her fingers: heaven for Aunt Dicy would have to include the finest snuff, supplied on a daily basis.

There are several aspects of the psychological character of Aunt Dicy that are represented visually in Biggers’ drawings. A major character trait is her ability to seize the opportunity to get what she needs or to speak up to get what she wants. Aunt Dicy has a public persona, a community presence that begins with her leading her family up the road to the plantation house and hailing the man on horseback who directs the family to their future homestead. In “Aunt Dicy and the Mailman,” she is depicted having a leisurely conversation with the mailman as he makes his weekly delivery of snuff to her. In the drawings she is portrayed as matriarchal in the best sense; her head is never bowed, and there is a sense of self-awareness in her presence that is a reflection of her surefooted dealings with the world. She knows that she will not starve, that she will have a roof over her head for herself and her family, and even within her limited means she demands a peaceful place for relaxation within her daily life, even if it is only the humble pleasure of dipping snuff.

Another engaging personality trait is her ability to see beneath the surface of things. In “Uncle June and the Animal in the Woods,” Aunt Dicy corrects Uncle June’s vision by cleaning his glasses for him and pointing out that what he thought was a bear was actually a smudge of snuff juice on the lens. The story becomes a metaphor for human perception: it is easy to think that you see a bear in the woods when you are looking through soiled lenses.

She is fiscally secure and brings to the table an awareness of the importance of independent black financial structures. In “Aunt Dicy in the Courtroom,” her own money is used to pay her son’s fine for gambling, and also quite humorously to create a climate of personal control for herself. Aunt Dicy is comfortable and self-confident enough to spit snuff juice on the courtroom floor, and financially independent enough to pay her fine for doing so in advance, as she waits for her son’s case to be heard. Rather than flaunt the rule, Aunt Dicy slyly demonstrates how petty she finds it by summarily paying the fine ahead of her actions. Her attitude is vividly expressed in the Biggers drawing. While her son Pomp stands with bowed head at the judge’s bench, Aunt Dicy sits with chin upturned and snuff stick in her mouth, busily counting out the bills in her lap to pay her fines for spitting on the floor. Her look is one of complete independence, self-confidence and control, a woman too busy to deal with a matter as silly as a no-spitting rule. She is a woman dispensing judgment in her own fashion.

With Aunt Dicy’s strength of character come her country ways. Initially, we the viewers are repulsed by her habits. As Brewer says in his introduction, “Aunt Dicy dipped snuff because she liked to dip it, and she wasn’t ashamed to let people know she dipped it.” We would rather not witness Aunt Dicy dipping snuff, even if she is wearing her fancy hat with the stickpin in honor of Booker T. Washington’s lecture. We momentarily become her disapproving daughters, Serelia and Samantha, who graduated from Prairie View Normal College, and now lacquer their nails and have their hair elaborately coiffured. To these superficial responses, Aunt Dicy pays no heed. In “Aunt Dicy and the Peach Seeds,” Biggers graphically depicts Aunt Dicy’s feet standing amidst peach seeds and flies. This attention to that humble part of the body that connects to the earth underscores the artist’s determination to depict her with honesty and intimacy. The drawing suggests the same point of view held by Jacob Lawrence in his Harriet Tubman series when he simply drew the tired and ragged feet of slaves chained together as they moved in unison.

John Biggers knows Aunt Dicy. She was standing on the front porch of her shotgun with a similar checkered cloth apron in his First Shotgun (1951). She was a young mother seated on the front steps nursing her baby like a Gothic Madonna in his painting Mother and Child. Later she will be represented in the spirited expressiveness of market women in Nigeria and in the lively exchange of women in Quilting Party.

She is no caricature. She is no broad stereotype. If we view her in this way, we are making a mistake, for Aunt Dicy is much more. In her eyes is a wily intelligence, evident in her gaze at Uncle June when he is about to vote. Snuff stick in her mouth, she points directly at the voting box to give Uncle June a sense of direction in this election, and her expression is quite different from his. Uncle June seems lost in a sea of white male faces,unsure about what to do. Aunt Dicy, on the other hand is wily as a fox. Seemingly completely unaware of the white men around her (although we know that she is highly aware of their presence), she points that finger and gazes knowingly beneath the brim of her jauntily flowered hat.

Biggers’ drawings communicate a great deal about the relationship between Aunt Dicy and her husband Uncle June,and their ability to function as a unit. In the frontspiece drawing, Aunt Dicy walks in front of the family, speaking to the foreman, while Uncle June follows with the wheelbarrow containing the family belongings. It seems understood by both that Aunt Dicy has the more fierce and vocal personality, while Uncle June is the quiet and strong provider. Later, Aunt Dicy takes on her preacher for preaching against snuff, and partakes of her snuff at Booker T. Washington’s lecture as Uncle June looks on. Yet it is Uncle June,the artist, who in “Aunt Dicy and the New Brand of Snuff,” sensitively recreates an illustrated can of snuff that Aunt Dicy especially enjoys. It is this quiet connection to his soulmate that makes Uncle June an uncommon man. He is not at all weak. He simply understands the fiery personality of his wife and gives her room to be herself.

Biggers places Aunt Dicy in surroundings typical of rural black communities in the early twentieth century, and depicts these environments as characterized by a clear sense of order. In Aunt Dicy’s kitchen, pots and pans are hung within easy reach. In the, the tools for rural living hang from the ceiling. On the train, her lunch is tied neatly in a shoebox with a string. She wears comfortable layered clothing: cotton that we sense is soft to the touch from washing. It is interesting to note that on only three occasions does Aunt Dicy wear a straw hat: at church, while voting, and at the lecture of Booker T. Washington. Thus worship, the right to vote and education are ceremonial occasions that call for Aunt Dicy’s best public display. A fancier Aunt Dicy appears on these occasions, though she is her indefatigable self as she balls her fists up at the preacher, points clandestinely at the voting box, and dips snuff at Booker T. Washington’s talk.

It is especially fitting that this exhibition is presented at the University of Texas at Austin.A number of members of the Austin community, many with University ties, were instrumental in their early support of this project. As educators and as artists, J. Mason Brewer and John Biggers documented a fundamental aspect of southern culture. Aunt Dicy Tales was in many ways a volume ahead of its time. In its publication it did much to reveal the richness of black folk culture in East Texas. Their collaboration operates at a level of success comparable to the combined efforts of photographer Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes for The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The book records and illustrates a fundamental aspect of Texas and American cultural history.

Alvia Wardlaw
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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